Do the Hustle! Starsky and Hutch Return

Todd Phillips’ Starsky and Hutch , from a screenplay by John O’Brien, Scot Armstrong and Mr. Phillips, has partially restored my faith in mainstream American movies. Just when I was convinced that a movie couldn’t be both popular and moderately intelligent in today’s teen market, along comes Starsky and Hutch to offer up 101 minutes of chuckle-worthy escapism.

I don’t want to make any exaggerated claims for what is, after all, a recycled property-a 70’s cop show that is remembered as something considerably less than legend. And there’s no danger of the current version sweeping next year’s Oscars (as Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson boastfully promised on this year’s red carpet).

Mr. Phillips and his collaborators have craftily exploited the original series’ oh-so-crazy 70’s nostalgia value, although the film’s stylized remoteness is far from the original TV show or, for that matter, any recognizable reality. Bay City, the film’s ostensible locale, seems vaguely Northern Californian, but unlike Law and Order and its variously acronymed spin-offs ( S.V.U. , C.I. ), Mr. Phillips has stayed away from the gritty scene-setting shots we’re used to seeing in recent cop shows. And unlike today’s more ambitious TV cops, Starsky and Hutch steers clear of the hyper-cerebral realm of sleuthing.

For one thing, Mr. Stiller’s Starsky and Mr. Owen’s Hutch have inherited their predecessors’ farcical propensity for playing dress-up. In fact, I failed even to recognize them when they popped up as mimes (the least-talented mimes of all time, I might add) at the home of Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn), a Jewish drug lord who’s celebrating his daughter’s bat mitzvah. Feldman is promptly cuffed by our heroes, who not only fail to find drugs on the premises, but end up shooting the pony that Feldman bought his daughter as a bat mitzvah present. The pony’s slow-motion fall is good for a laugh from the audience, which has already been softened up by a whole array of politically incorrect outrages.

Consider Mr. Wilson’s Hutch: He’s first introduced as an undercover cop “infiltrating” the mob by participating with enthusiastic expertise in the robbery of illegal bookmakers. Hutch’s voice-over contradicts Starsky’s own initial intro to the duo’s crime-busting ethics. Starsky’s version of events: He’s a dedicated civil servant who considers himself well paid to enforce the law, even as he risks life and limb pursuing perps over rooftops with less than 10 dollars in his pockets. Hutch, on the other hand, assures us he’s so badly paid as an undercover agent that he’s forced to keep the loot from his bookie robberies just to make ends meet. Again, this touch of brazen criminality fits into the movie’s hey-it’s-the-crazy-70’s appeal. Similarly, both Starsky and Hutch encourage the “babes” to come on to them with an ill-concealed lechery coupled with pseudo-seriousness. But hey, feminism has come a long way since the slavish 70’s, when “babes” joyfully flashed their assets as if they were tasty morsels in a succulent salad bar.

In one of the film’s goofiest sequences, Starsky and Hutch find themselves compelled to act out a homoerotic fetish for a particularly depraved convict in order to persuade him to reveal a valuable piece of information. Of course, as is the convention of the genre, they’re caught on surveillance tape doing it, which means we can have the gag replayed endlessly, leading their exasperated superior, Captain Doby (Fred Williamson), to yell at the two nebbishes to shape up or ship out.

In some ways, Starsky and Hutch reminded me of the hilarious cable comedy show Curb Your Enthusiasm . The show’s creator and star, Larry David, hits new highs (or lows) mining the forbidden humor in taboo subjects like interfaith marriage, the Holocaust and, of course, penis and vagina jokes such as you’d never believe-and certainly such as you’d never encounter on network television, which is still in shock after one infamously bared breast seen in long shot.

Mr. Phillips and his Starsky and Hutch collaborators are nowhere near Mr. David’s genius level, of course. Our Larry says anything that comes into his sociopathic mind, so that hundreds of years of good manners and other social restraints are merrily flushed down the toilet. In contrast, Starsky and Hutch are not without tender and respectful feelings toward each other. The emotional fallout from their one massive misunderstanding brings them both to the brink of manly tears and beyond. But then Starsky, especially, seems to have been a crybaby from way back. The mere thought of his late policewoman mother-whose headstone he regularly adorns with a doughnut-telling him that he isn’t man enough to handle the souped-up cherry-red Ford Torino (with white racing stripe) that she bequeathed him-a prescient act of product placement-makes him sob uncontrollably.

It all sounds very silly, and it is. But movies, unlike television shows, gotta have heart to survive commercially. When one sits in the dark, one cannot resist the invitation to feel all warm and gushy inside. Fortunately for this movie, a sterling supporting cast-down to the tiniest bit parts-provides enough astringent intelligence to make the slobbering sentimentality go down with ease. Mr. Vaughn is wonderfully overqualified to play the sleaziest and most vicious of villains, and Snoop Dogg provides an extra dividend as Huggy Bear, a police informant with his own rackets on the side. Juliette Lewis as Kitty, Feldman’s mistress, does her best to make up for the short shrift given to women in the male-dominated world of Bay City. In one of the post-credit outtakes, Kitty is shown being dumped overboard by her heartless mobster lover from his getaway yacht.

So it may not be the ideal date movie, but I suspect that many women will be charmed by Messrs. Stiller and Wilson’s tongue-in-cheek reinvention of Starsky and Hutch as sappy, sensitive guys in touch with their own womanly depths.

Irish Imbroglio

John Crowley’s Intermission was shot in Dublin with a cast so frenetically Irish that half the time I thought I was listening to Aramaic with no English subtitles to enlighten me. As for the narrative, it might be described as 13 characters in search of a story. Still, despite all the messiness and incomprehension, I can’t say that the movie ever failed to hold my interest. For one thing, it confirms a friend’s contention that the Irish are quite naturally the best actors in the world. It may be that centuries of blarney are embedded in their genes; certainly I can’t imagine actors from any other country carrying off anything as convoluted as this. But what is the “this” I’m referring to? I was hoping you wouldn’t ask.

Mr. Crowley, a first-time director, begins Intermission with a series of cross-cutting close-ups involving a neighborhood mug named Lehiff (Colin Farrell) and an otherwise unidentified barmaid. As the exchanges become more and more provocative, Lehiff terminates the growing intimacy by smashing the barmaid across the face, making her nose bleed, and proceeds to empty the register and take off. Lehiff is a character who keeps popping up in ever more thuggish contexts, but aside from his opening close-ups, he never really connects with any other human being in the film.

After Intermission was over, I wondered about the other characters. As things stand now, Mr. Farrell is by far the biggest “name” in the cast, and his character is by far the worst human being in the story. Were the opening close-ups a way of fattening his part, or simply the result of a peculiarly disjunctive form of storytelling? After all, the real linchpin of the narrative is the decision by John (Cillian Murphy) to ask Deirdre (Kelly MacDonald) for a time-out from their relationship. As he later confides to his pal Oscar (David Wilmot), John simply intended to test Deirdre’s fidelity to him. He’s then startled to discover that Deirdre is so angry with him that she’s making herself available to just about everyone she encounters. He invades her apartment looking for a lover; she throws him out into the street. Shortly thereafter, she commences an affair with a local bank manager, Sam (Michael McElhatton), who is, of course, married and middle-aged. His wife Noeleen blows up over his betrayal and begins frequenting a singles’ bar in desperation. Here she encounters the shyly virginal Oscar, who’s previously been shown masturbating while watching a porn video. Noeleen seduces Oscar easily, but proves so insatiable that he flees the room out of horror and exhaustion.

And this just begins to scratch the surface of the myriad criss-crossing plots and subplots. In one scene, our irredeemable acquaintance Lehiff strides into a tavern to relieve himself without making a purchase. For this offense, Lehiff is confronted by Jerry (Colm Meaney), a fanatical vigilante detective who yearns to be the scourge of the streets. For the moment, he’s content to demonstrate his authority by grasping Lehiff in a stranglehold and contemptuously urinating on his shoes.

Jerry and Lehiff will meet only one more time, and only one man will survive the encounter. In the meantime, there’s a botched kidnapping, a botched bank robbery, and a bus accident caused by a rock thrown through the driver’s window by a mischievous child cyclist named Philip (Taylor Molloy).

Deirdre’s younger and emotionally dysfunctional sister, Sally (Shirley Henderson), provides a more positive plot strand. Sally has allowed her appearance to deteriorate: A shadowy mustache is now visible on her upper lip. Fortunately, both Deirdre and Sally are ultimately calmed and soothed by their marvelously phlegmatic mother, the widowed Maura (Ger Ryan), who’s ultimately pleased to see Deirdre reunited with John and Noeleen with a new and respectful lover-none other than the seemingly ubiquitous Oscar.

Everyone in this movie certainly gets around, but despite all sorts of disasters, everyone remains proudly resilient. It’s hard to classify Intermission within the conventional categories of comedy, tragedy and melodrama. The funniest moments are tinged with melancholy, and the most violent acts are performed with farcical maladroitness. Overall, Intermission is a failed experiment with more than a few gleaming insights.

Do the Hustle! Starsky and Hutch Return